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Villanova takes first step toward third straight Big East Tournament title

Villanova guard Collin Gillespie reacts after sinking a

Villanova guard Collin Gillespie reacts after sinking a three-pointer against Providence during a quarterfinal game in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

No Big East title game came and went without Villanova the past four seasons. The Wildcats emerged with the conference’s automatic pass into the NCAA Tournament the last two years and three times overall in a span of excellence.

Last year, they turned that pass from an overtime win over Providence into their second national championship in three seasons. But four players packed and moved to the NBA. So Villanova arrived at the Garden Thursday to start Big East Tournament play looking more vulnerable, bringing along nine losses after dropping four of six.

The top-seeded Wildcats again looked vulnerable in their quarterfinal against a young, eighth-seeded Providence team. They were stuck in a tie with 9:18 left. Then they pulled free, survived another Friars rally and advanced with a 73-62 victory behind 20 points and 10 rebounds from Eric Paschall and 19 points from Collin Gillespie.

Villanova shot just 36.7 percent and 32.3 from three but it still improved to 23-9. Next up is Friday’s 6:30 semi against Xavier. The Friars (18-15), who beat No. 9 Butler Wednesday night, were paced by Nate Watson’s 18 points.

“I think we beat a good team, a good physical defensive team,” coach Jay Wright said. “It wasn’t pretty, but you’ve got to be willing to play ugly and win some of those games.”

Providence went from down 40-32 to tied at 44 when Alpha Diallo converted a three-point play. But Gillespie made two of his five threes and Paschall hit a three and got inside for a basket to highlight a 17-5 burst that put the Wildcats ahead 61-49 with 4:36 remaining.

“Coach gives me the confidence to be aggressive, shoot threes and also just take what the defense gives me,” said Paschall, a 6-9 redshirt senior forward.

The Friars cut it to five with 3:18 left after a three by Diallo and two free throws by Isaiah Jackson. That was as close as it got, though. Jermaine Samuels Jr. made two from the line and a three to help hold off Providence, which committed 19 turnovers that led to 24 points.

“I thought our energy was great,” Friars coach Ed Cooley said. “We just made too many mistakes . . . If we get into the NIT, I’ll be excited about it because I still want to play with this young group. If we don’t, we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror.”

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